The 10 Biggest Strikes in American History

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Published August 09, 2011

| 24/7 Wall St.

About 45,000 Verizon (VZ) workers have walked off the job after their contract expired and management and union failed to reach a deal. While 45,000 sounds impressive, it doesnt come close to some of the biggest strikes in American history.

Tensions between labor and management often cause work stoppages known as strikes. Management has always wanted more work for as little pay as possible. Labor has always wanted what it considers fair compensation.

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The current Verizon strike takes place a few years after the company reached its apex in terms of market penetration and as its landline business began to slow. But labor strife has always been greatest just as industries have reached their peaks, enjoying great financial strength and employing large numbers of workers.

The earliest large strikes, although perhaps not the largest, were at textile companies that handled the finishing of cotton and other raw goods from the South. Most of these companies were based in the labor-heavy Northeast and Midwest.

From there, the labor movement migrated to railroads and mining and steel companies. Until Andrew Carnegie, steel had not been a huge industry. The use of steel expanded with the needs and growth of the shipping industry, as well as automobiles and other manufactured consumer and commercial goods. Eventually, steel strikes became some of the more violent ones.

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The rise of the automobile caused the next great labor disputes as workers fought for better conditions in the huge factories of the Midwest. As transportation moved from ground to air, airlines became among the largest employers in the country, and the industrys most variable cost.
The history of the American strike helped to eventually create the nations great middle class.
The ten biggest strikes in American history (in chronological order):

1) Great Southwest Railroad Strike
> No. of strikers: 200,000
> Period: March to September, 1886
> Affected area: Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Texas
By the end of the 1800s, the American railroad was expanding quickly. In 1886, the Knights of Labor went on strike at the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads, owned by robber baron Jay Gould. Hundreds of thousands of workers across five states refused to work, citing unsafe conditions and unfair hours and pay. The strike suffered from a lack of commitment from other railroad unions, the successful hiring of nonunion workers by Gould and from violence and scare tactics. Eventually, the strike failed and the Knights of Labor disbanded soon afterwards.

2) The Pullman Strike
> No. of strikers: 250,000
> Period: May 11 to mid-July, 1894
> Affected area: Chicago, Illinois
Facing 12-hour work days and wage cuts resulting from the depressed economy, factory workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked out in protest. The workers were soon joined by members of the American Railway Union (ARU), who refused to work on or run any trains, including Pullman-owned cars. Soon enough, 250,000 industry workers joined in the strike, effectively shutting down train traffic to the west of Chicago. The strike ended when President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago on July 6, 1894. However, widespread sympathy for the workers cause promoted prounion sentiment across many areas of the country.

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3) Great Anthracite Coal Strike
> No. of strikers: 147,000
> Period: May to October, 1902
> Affected area: Eastern Pennsylvania
At the turn of the last century, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) began a strike that threatened to create an energy crisis. Seeking better wages and conditions, the union went on strike in eastern Pennsylvania, an area that contained the majority of the nations supply of anthracite coal. As the winter of 1903 approached President Theodore Roosevelt became concerned that a heating crisis could develop and attempted to intervene  unsuccessfully. Industrialist and financier J.P. Morgan believed the strike could threaten his businesses and made a deal with the union. The UMWAs initial demands were for a 20% wage increase. They wound up with a 10% raise.

4) Steel Strike of 1919
> No. of strikers: 350,000
> Period: September 1919 to January 1920
> Affected area: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Following World War I, United States Steel Corporation workers represented by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) organized a strike against poor working conditions, long hours, low wages and corporate harassment regarding union involvement. The number of strikers quickly grew to 350,000, shutting down nearly half of the steel industry. Company owners, however, invoked public concerns over communism and immigration as a way of turning public sentiment against the unions. This resulted in the strikes failure and ensured an absence of union organization in the steel industry for the next 15 years.

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5) Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922
> No. of strikers: 400,000
> Period: July to October, 1922
> Affected area: nationwide
In 1922, the railroad labor board announced that wages for railroad shop workers would be cut by 7 cents  a considerable sum at the time. In early July of that year, 400,000 rail shop laborers from a conglomeration of unions went on strike. The great American railroads responded, immediately employing nonunion workers to replace three-quarters of the empty positions. After the strike had lasted for some time, U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty persuaded a federal judge to ban all strike-related activities. The unions knew the ban put an end to their efforts and settled in October for a 5 cent pay cut and went back to work.

6) Textile Workers Strike of 1934
> No. of strikers: 400,000
> Period: September 1934
> Affected area: entire Eastern seaboard
On Labor Day in 1934, after years of long hours and low wages, American textile workers set out to strike in response to the negligent representation of textile labor in FDRs National Recovery Administration. The United Textile Workers (UTW) organized 400,000 to walk out for just over 20 days, but a lack of outside support and an excess of textile materials, especially in the Southern states, forced the strike to end without any of the original demands being met. Union spirit reached new lows in the following years and many workers were blacklisted as a result.

7) 1946 Bituminous Coal Strike
> No. of strikers: 400,000
> Period: April to December, 1946
> Affected area: across 26 states
On April Fools day of 1946, the United Mine Workers of America called on 400,000 bituminous coal miners to strike for safer conditions, health benefits and pay. The strike came at a time when the national economy was recovering from the second World War, and president Truman saw the UMWAs actions as counterproductive to national industrial recovery. Truman approached the union with a settlement. When the workers refused the proposal, they were fined $3.5 million, forcing their agreement and the end of the strike. Although forced, most of the UMWAs demands were met in Trumans compromise.

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8 ) Steel Strike of 1959
> No. of strikers: 500,000
> Period: July to November, 1959
> Affected area: nationwide
During 1959, steel industry profits were skyrocketing. Noticing this, the nations steelworkers, represented by the United Steelworkers of America, demanded higher wages. At the same time, management was working against the union to lose a contract clause that protected worker jobs and hours. This conflict resulted in a 500,000-worker strike, the effects of which were felt throughout the industry. In the end, the union received wage increases and preserved the contract clause.

9) 1970 U.S. Postal Strike
> No. of strikers: 210,000
> Period: March, 1970
> Affected area: began in New York City, spread nationwide
During the Nixon administration, U.S. postal workers were not allowed to engage in collective bargaining. Increased dissatisfaction with wages, working conditions, benefits and management led the postal workers in New York City to strike. Encouraged by New Yorks example, postal workers nationwide followed suit. With mail and parcel delivery at a standstill, Nixon ordered the National Guard to replace the striking workers  a measure that proved ineffective. The strike was so effective that within two weeks negotiations took place. The unions demands for higher wages and improved conditions were largely met, and they were granted the right to negotiate.

10) UPS workers strike
> No. of strikers: 185,000
> Period: August 1997
> Affected area: nationwide
The largest strike of the 1990s was lead by 185,000 UPS Teamsters. They were looking for the creation of full-time jobs rather than part-time, increased wages and the retention of their multiemployer pension plan. These workers gained major support from the public and eventually had all of their demands met. UPS, however, lost more than $600 million in business as a result of the ordeal.

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